A football team for refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow hopes to bring communities and cultures together in a city traditionally divided by the sport.
United Glasgow FC, an amateur team competing in the Scottish Unity Football League, boasts a squad comprised of players from more than 20 countries including Cameroon, China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The players have fled conflict and political persecution around the world, and many are reluctant to be named. One was brought to the UK as a child when his mother escaped civil war and genocide in Burundi. Several are Somalis whose villages were attacked by the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab. Others are journalists and political activists who were detained, beaten and tortured after criticising Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe.
Charity worker Alan White founded the team in 2011. His employer, Unity in the Community, an organisation working to support asylum seekers, had previously arranged informal matches in city parks.
Unity had been doing semi-regular kickabouts for asylum seekers to try and help improve their mental and physical health, and they asked me to take it over because they didn’t have the resources to keep it going.
From there it grew fairly quickly. Our goal is to give everyone the chance to train and play no matter who they are, and we found that as well as refugees and asylum seekers we had unemployed Scottish people who were keen to come and get involved.
Over time it’s become more organised. Now we have 11, seven- and five-a-side teams. We’ve gotten a good women’s team together, and we’ve just spoken to the SFA about officially entering the women’s setup in Scotland.
UGFC’s inclusive ethos has seen it form bonds with other teams across Europe who share a similar political outlook. The team participated in the 2013 Anti-Racism World Cup, a weekend-long anti-fascist amateur competition held in Belfast. They also attended a football tournament and refugee summit organised by supporters of Hamburg’s FC St Pauli, although travel restrictions on most of the team meant that the squad for the event consisted largely of coaches and volunteers.
White said that as well as providing training opportunities, the club aimed to remove some of the social and financial barriers that made it difficult for some people to get involved in the game.
If you’re playing for an amateur team you can be looking at paying around £15 to cover training and match costs. For anyone who’s living under the constraints of the welfare system, or particularly for asylum seekers, that can be a huge slice of what they’re expected to live on.
There’s also a certain culture that surrounds amateur football in Scotland. Nowadays everybody knows they aren’t supposed to be racist, but sexism and homophobia are still rampant, and that’s something we try to educate our own players and our opposition about.
He added that Sepp Blatter, the head of football’s global governing body FIFA, had done little to combat homophobia and sexism in the sport. Blatter was roundly criticised for suggesting that gay fans “should refrain from any sexual behaviour” at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal. He also came under fire for suggesting that women’s football could improve its popularity if players wore more revealing clothing.
UGFC head coach Euan McLeod said he had occasionally had to deal with similar attitudes from new players.
We had one guy who came along for the first time and said that a poor shot on goal was ‘a bit women’s team.’ We explained to him that that wasn’t on and he won’t be doing that again.
But we don’t really have that many problems. When people get involved we’re clear with them about why the team was set up. There are some people who genuinely just don’t know that certain terminology is offensive. It’s a case of educating people rather than wagging your finger and saying: ‘this will not stand.’
He added that while the team was made up of players of different nationalities and backgrounds, his role as a coach had been straightforward.
We’ve got a big mix in terms of the countries people come from, the languages they speak and their skills and experience on a football pitch. But football is quite universal - a lot of coaching is about demonstrating things rather than explaining them.
I’ve also learned a lot about the players’ lives and what they’ve been through. Before I became the coach I didn’t know about the strife that asylum seekers face day to day. There are people on the team whose families have had to flee warzones.
A lot of people tell us that when they’re here they can take their mind off of their problems and just be players for an hour and a half at a time. That’s not a long time, but it’s very valuable time when you’re facing these kinds of issues.
Ahmed Bunu, an asylum seeker from Somalia, said the club had given him a much-needed chance for recreation.
I’ve been in Glasgow for four years, and before I got involved with the team I just had nothing to do. All I did was stay at home.
There aren’t a lot of opportunities for asylum seekers to get involved in football or to play other sports. Before you can join any kind of club you need to get insurance, and that’s just not possible for us.
But playing here has given me the chance to meet new people. There were some people from my country, but they’re gone now. I’ve met people from a lot of other countries and it’d been good finding out about their cultures.
By providing this common ground for people with such varied nationalities, religious and cultural backgrounds, United Glasgow aims to inspire a spirit of inclusiveness in grassroots football.
Chairman Alan White said:
Football’s not always a force for good. That’s something that Glasgow well and truly demonstrates. Realistically we’re not going to be able to change all that. We’re not going to be able to change the whole of society.
But you can certainly make small impacts. You can change people’s views. And the more people and clubs that are out there doing that, the better.